Inside stories

In her new book, The Way We Are, Margaret Visser, master decoder, tells the whats, why's, wherefores and wherefroms of our possessions, habits and foibles... like this
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The Independent Culture

Runs, wrinkles,

seams & snags

When the obdurately unliberated male gaze focuses its attention on a female leg - choosing one bit of body and ogling that bit is itself an ancient erotic routine - it likes to find the leg smooth, glossy, without blemish, slim yet curvilinear, with its shape preferably outlined. High heels can induce the desired contours, but for surfaces and outlines, stockings are essential. Nylon stockings make female legs different from men's. They also render flesh visible but untouchable - at least for the present - thereby provoking the senses.

It was men who first displayed their legs in stockings. In late-5th century Europe, a revolution in fashion removed the skirts, tunics and loincloths that tend to be worn by males in societies seriously committed to clothes. Men strode forth in tight stockings and power-flaunting codpieces. Their legs have never since, in the history of normative Western fashion, retreated into skirts.

Women became two-legged four centuries later. They had worn hosiery all along, of course, a fact that used to be hinted at by the occasional glimpse of a stockinged ankle, often decoratively clocked. After the First World War, however, women dared to chop their skirts short, and stockings began their modern rise to unprecedented importance.

For keeping bared female legs warm, smooth and shiny, nothing was better than silk. And silk stockings were wickedly expensive, setting apart both occasions and people. They "ran" too, and had constantly to be replaced: a "ladder" ruined one's entire outfit. Remaining ladder-free forced women to be careful, delicate and well financed.

Cotton, wool or lisle stockings were more sensible, stronger, warmer and therefore low in status - and far less erotic. Nylon appeared in America on the eve of the Second World War, so that international availability of nylon stockings had to wait until the end of the Forties. Nylon was much cheaper than silk, but it was sheerer, and laddered even more readily.

For a long time, stockings had seams up the back, which were difficult to keep straight, yet straight they had to be. The line emphasised shape. It rose from a reinforced and patterned back-of-the-ankle and disappeared up the skirt. A straight one demonstrated control, and constant attention even to the back of one's look. When seamless stockings became the norm in the Sixties, millions who had achieved competence were saddened and reluctant.

Crooked seams were matched in shameful delinquency by wrinkles. Feet, in addition, meet legs in an unfortunate join that can wrinkle stockings at the ankle, spoiling the important doll-smooth, unblemished effect. Twentieth-century people became more and more fussy on this point, until the invention of stretch thread, which has made any hint of a wrinkle a sad lapse: your stockings are too big or too cheap, or you have worn them more than once without washing them.

In the late Sixties we accepted the miniskirt, a step that would have been impossible without the arrival, just previously, of pantyhose. These descendants of acrobatic costume (M Leotard was a famous trapeze artist) had already become everyday children's wear. Suspenders, like garters before them, had been hidden, and required undoing before stockings could be peeled off. With their disappearance another erotic prop had gone.

Pantyhose, in fact, have enormously reduced the erotic draw of stockings. They are protective, sensible (given the demands of female fashion) and comfortable - or ought to be. If they are not, the discomforts they cause (sliding down till crotch reaches mid-thigh, legs too short, panty waist too high or too low) are definitely the opposite of erotic. They run constantly (and are wasteful too: one run and both stockings are disqualified), but they are cheap. For the time being, women remain committed to the dull nuisance of pantyhose. We are also learning to be more critical of the Male Gaze than at any time in history.

High heels

In Alfred Hitchcock's film The Lady Vanishes, a nun is shockingly revealed to be no nun. She is sitting sedately enough, but we suddenly notice, protruding from beneath her habit, a pair of high-heeled shoes. Footwear of that shape immediately signals to us that this is a woman playing the sexual game.

When clothing resembling nuns' habits was ordinary female apparel, there were no such things as heels of any sort. Heels appeared for the first time in France in the 590s. They were quite high and worn first by men. It was soon realised that heels had their uses as stirrup-holders on riding boots. But their first purpose was to raise their owners, enable them to pose impressively, and stretch their legs so that their calf muscles bulged curvaceously out.

Women quickly took to wearing heels although their legs were hidden by voluminous skirts, and when they did hemlines rose to show off their shoes. High-heeled shoes are still meant predominantly for posing in.

High heels have never been made for comfort or ease of movement. Their first wearers spoke of themselves as "mounted" or "propped" up on them; they were strictly court wear, and were proof that one intended no physical exertion, and need make none.

The Chinese had long known footwear that had the same effect, with high wooden pillars under the arch of each shoe, so that wearers required one or even two servants to help them totter along. Women had their feet deformed, by binding, into tiny, almost useless fists, which were shod in embroidered bootees: men got out of the thought of these an unconscionable thrill.

The European versions of stilt-shoes were Venetian chopines, which grew in height to 20 inches and more. The shoes attached to these pedestals sloped slightly towards the toe, and this is believed to be one origin of the heel. The other was the thoroughly mundane and practical patten or wooden clog, which raised the whole foot and was slipped over shoes to protect them from mud and water in the street.

"Straights", or both shoes made exactly alike, arrived with heels; people had to swap their left and right shoes every day, to keep them in shape. Fitted lefts and rights returned only when fashion dispensed with heels - until the pantograph changed shoemaking technology in the 9th century and made heeled lefts and rights feasible.

High heels became distinctively female dress during the 8th century: men heartily approved. 'Heels" cause a woman's bottom to undulate twice as much as flat shoes permit; they pleasingly hobble the female and give the male a protective function; they add curve to the leg by shortening the heel cords and raising calf muscles. Sling-back shoes and curving heels help draw attention to the back of a woman: it is the ancient device of rewarding the turning of a male's head. Tall cones or "stiletto" heels are aggressive yet incapacitating, like long fingernails.

There has always been a preference for tiny feet in women: even prehistoric Venuses' legs tend to taper to a point. This might be because animals, especially stream- lined ones like cats, dogs and horses, have short feet or hooves. High heels and skimpy shoes reduce feet and lengthen legs; they emphasise the animal in woman. Also - and this is important sexually - stretched legs show that she is taut and trying.

After the French Revolution the idea of using high heels to advertise status became embarrassing, and women and men went immediately into flats (very insubstantial ones if you were upper class). Men soon regained a small heel to secure the straps under their feet that held their trouserlegs tight.

Fashion historians tell us that women don strong shoes, low heels and round toes whenever society feels threatened and politics uncertain. They are a sure sign that people - men as well as women - are worried and gearing up for a fight.


Gloves, in German, are called "hand shoes." Like shoes, they evolved as a protection for the extremities. But their quirky, unmistakable shape, and their manner of taking on individual bodily idiosyncrasies so that they seem eerily part of the person even when they are off, have assured for gloves, as for shoes, a rich social and psychological significance. Fingerless mittens - either the simple bags with thumbs, or the ones that leave the fingers protruding - used to be thought appropriate for children, old people and those who merely wished to keep their hands warm. Fingers were what made gloves in the past suggestive of authority and prestige; lower-class people were sometimes forbidden to wear gloves with fingers.

The elasticity of fine thin leather, such as kid, was prized before stretch fabrics or glove sizes were invented. Aristocratic hands covered with pale kid gloves looked smooth, costly, narrow, and manifestly unacquainted with work. Men and women would go to bed wearing gloves filled with cream, to whiten and soften their hands. Eighteenth-century Irish "chickenskin" gloves were even thinner and smoother than kid. They were cut from the skins of aborted calves, and so fine that they came folded into the shell of a walnut.

Long narrow glove fingers had to be eased open with wooden stretchers before they could be put on. They were commonly made as much as two centimetres longer than any normal finger, and stitching was continued on the outside of the glove as far as the knuckles , to make fingers look as lengthy and as tapering as possible; they were the equivalents of pointed toes on shoes. Glovers combined their trade with that of perfumery, and the best leather gloves were scented with musk, civet, ambergris, and spirit of roses.

The immensely complex symbolism of gloves derives, of course, from the meanings of hands. As with a handshake, gloves meant faith and confidence: investitures or the transference of property could be symbolised by handing over a glove. They were pledges of protection and authority, as when the king's glove was erected on a pole during a free fair. They signified honour and courage: flinging down a gauntlet was a challenge and a demand for satisfaction, if necessary by trial of strength.

Gloves "lined" with money were famous as formal bribes. High-up people often received, on symbolic occasions, far too many pairs of gloves to use them all; for this reason, fine specimens survive in large numbers for the pleasure of collectors. These are often jewelled, beaded, fringed, embroidered, and masterfully cut and sewn.

The etiquette of glove-wearing was based on ideas of power attaching to whether a glove was on (generally, in the declining of physical contact with others, a sign of superiority); or off ( a token of respect). It was often correct, for instance, for a man to remove his glove to shake hands, whereas a woman kept hers on - she being both ritually superior and modest. Two equals or two intimates both took their gloves off. Servants kept gloves on so they would touch no one directly; pristine white gloves for waiters were proof, in addition, that fingers had not slipped into the sauce.

Only a few decades ago it was considered polite, especially for women, to put on gloves whenever leaving the house: they were formal fashion accessories, and hands were to be exposed only in private. Nowadays, we are utilitarian about gloves as about most things. An aura of moneyed competence still clings, however, to sporting gloves, to hand-coverings for driving, golfing, and bicycling. Baseball mitts and mighty hockey and boxing gloves are cunningly designed, carefully regulated, tough, purposeful and fearsomely specific. The people who wear these know what they are doing; their gloves are there to protect their hands, yes - but also to proclaim their prowess to those of us who merely clap.


The insectile shape for women in swimsuits - legs springing from the waist, and abdomen tapering to a point at the crotch - has been one of the few genuinely original "looks" in women's fashion in the past 25 years. The grasshopper image, baring hips and buttocks, is partly a harking back to the appearance of the first bikini (946). The pants of the tiny two-piece were eventually tied on low down on the wearer's hips; but the first bikini bottom was sensational not only because it was small but because it left the body's outline, including most daringly the hips, free of clothing from the toes to the string at navel level. The one-piece, bare-hipped swimsuit began to make its way in 972, and took ten years to find wide acceptance.

Swimwear - where clothing is worn at all for swimming - has always been closely related to underwear. The same is true today: fashionable briefs uncover the hips just as swimsuits do. The earliest "bathing dress" for women was a long shift, just like that worn under day dresses. It covered the female form from neck to writs and feet.

But a wet shift can be far more revealing than even a bikini, and sexier than being seen plain naked. Our ancestors countered this with dresses of canvas and flannel, but complained that these often ballooned out suddenly in the water, with an entirely different effect from that intended.

When bathing, mid-9th century women wore pantaloons, sometimes down to and tied at the ankle, underneath long skirts. As time went on, European women would leave the skirt off and go about at the waterside brazenly bifurcated.

Gradually bloomers and skirts got shorter but as they did so woollen stockings were drawn up over legs. Even when it became conscionable for females to claim a shape that included two separate legs, modesty continued to demand tight armholes and high necklines; buttons on the shoulder helped wearers get into and out of swimsuits.

There was a feeling that wool kept one warm in the water. After sweaters had emerged from being merely underwear, knitting skills created a form- fitting, undraped bodystocking for swimming; the human form could be seen at last in utterly uninterrupted silhouette. Men were the first beneficiaries of the stockinet swimsuit. They wore it in one piece, with leggings mid- thigh, and even, at first, a short skirt. A belt was not only stylish but necessary for keeping the suit in place as its wearer rose from the water with heavy wool streaming and sagging downward.

But the stretchy wool suit was soon worn by women too. It, together with the sun-tanning craze that began among the upper classes of the late Twenties, allowed women eventually to display backs, midriffs and legs naked to the tops of their thighs, provided that a vestigial skirt was retained in front. This "skirt" was removed only in the Sixties - and is said, from time to time, to be about to return, together with the ruched wrinkles still famous because of the memory of Marilyn Monroe.

When elasticised fabrics entered the fray in the late Thirties they soon replaced wool, and men could do without shoulder-straps to help keep their suits on. They bared their torsos and reduced the number of male swimsuit styles to two: the clinging and the baggy, the latter being held up by elastic at the waist. Women remain bridled by fashion, which was, however, to exercise great resourcefulness to ring changes on what is now a very small surface area of cloth.

People still want to cover at least some of themselves in public; most want to cover a bit more rather than any less. This gives the industry some room to manoeuvre - and even, when the time comes, to back away from an image that idealises outrageous legginess and narrowness, and expresses a generally entomological combination of aggression, energy and speed

'The Way We Are' is published by Viking, price pounds 4